TAMPA – It was a very big week for the University of South Florida men’s basketball team, maybe one that will define the season’s direction.
The Bulls were down 17 points on Dec. 4 at George Mason, playing some of their worst basketball, looking at a .500 record and a three-game losing streak.
It all changed.
George Mason’s Anali Okolji purposely stepped on prone USF point guard Anthony Collins, a shocking sign of disrespect that ultimately got Okolji suspended and woke up the slumbering Bulls.
“Ever since then, we’ve been clicking,’’ USF freshman forward Chris Perry said.
USF registered the greatest second-half comeback in the program’s 43-season history, quickly making up the 17-point deficit, then stunning George Mason 68-66 on a fadeaway baseline jumper by Corey Allen Jr., with 2.4 seconds remaining.
The Bulls (6-2) followed that up with Saturday night’s 66-64 home victory against the Alabama Crimson Tide, widely projected as an NCAA Tournament team in the preseason. Perry had 14 points and 14 rebounds, earning American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Week honors. He also was named Wayman Tisdale National Freshman of the Week.
With a break for exams before Tuesday’s home game against Florida Gulf Coast University – last season’s “Dunk City’’ NCAA Tournament darlings – the Bulls are back on track.
“It’s huge,’’ USF coach Stan Heath said. “For young people, winning breeds confidence. Winning breeds togetherness and a more inspired work ethic in practice. To win the way we did, just winning close ballgames, hanging on, playing well in (tight) situations, it’s huge.’’
USF continues to get massive contributions from its newcomers. Allen, a junior-college transfer who affects the game in a half-dozen areas, would be the early season’s MVP. Perry’s potential is obvious. Meanwhile, freshman center John Egbunu, already an accomplished shot-blocker, is merely scratching the surface.
The AAC already looks rugged with three of its 10 teams ranked – No. 6 Louisville (8-1), No. 9 Connecticut (9-0) and No. 16 Memphis (6-1) – and another receiving votes in Cincinnati (7-1). USF hosts Memphis in the New Year’s Eve AAC opener.
The Bulls still have much work ahead. But last week’s results showed a positive uptick. USF looks like a team that can contend for the postseason. And that’s a long, long way from that 17-point second-half deficit at George Mason.
USF’s offense – the biggest culprit for a 2-10 mark and a season-ending six-game losing streak – finished 121st nationally (256.4 yards per game) and surpassed only Miami (Ohio) and Florida International in the Football Bowl Subdivision. For only the third time in program history, USF’s offense reached a triple-digit ranking, along with 105th in 2010 and 107th in 2003.
The Bulls had unthinkable droughts – a national-low 11 offensive touchdowns all season, six games without an offensive touchdown, 29 straight quarters without a rushing touchdown, just to hit on some lowlights.
But USF’s defense was much more accomplished with a No. 22 national ranking (350.8 yards per game), which might be adjusted after the bowl-game results. USF’s national defensive ranking record is 17th, achieved four times (2010, 2005, 2003 and 2002).
Sophomore outside hitter Erin Fairs, the AAC Player of the Year, was named All-Southeast Region honorable mention by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. … Jose Fernandez’s women’s basketball team (5-3) returns to action Saturday afternoon at No. 14-ranked Oklahoma State (7-0). … Former USF men’s soccer player Dom Dwyer was part of Sporting Kansas City’s MLS Cup championship team. Sporting KC defeated Real Salt Lake in a 10-round shootout. Dwyer helped his team reach the championship match with a 63rd-minute goal in the Eastern Conference championship. … USF’s Rocky the Bull has reached the final of the Capital One Mascot of the Year Challenge, where the opponent is Raider Red of Texas Tech. Fans can vote for Rocky at http://capitalonebowl.com/#/matchups. The winner is announced at the Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl and it earns $20,000 toward the school’s mascot program.